The conflict of Covas do Barroso can be seen as a conflict related with the “Green Transition” plans developed by the European Commission to face the climate crisis . For the EC, this transition would mainly imply replacing energy sources based on fossil fuels, like oil and coal, to those based on renewable energies, like wind, solar, or hydro. As well as a shift from conventional transportation technologies to the electrification of mobility (electric cars). One of the most important components for battery production, a key element of this technological shift, is lithium. Lithium is a very light metal that is used for the stabilization and rechargeability of batteries . Thus, lithium has presently become one of the most valuable and sought-after commodities in the world market, with future demand surely continuing to increase.
As of 2021, the top producing countries of lithium are Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina, who combined produce over 90% of the world’s supply . This information is crucial if one wants to understand the EU’s role in the conflict over lithium extraction in Covas do Barroso. To reduce its dependency on strategic commodities, the EU has unveiled an “Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials”, which aims at reducing Europe’s dependency on third countries while fostering initiatives that seek to improve access to raw materials (e.g., Lithium) inside the EU territory . Given this, the EU has been supporting lithium mining projects occurring within EU countries. This plan is part of the EU’s 2050 long-term strategy to have “an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions”, also known as the Europe’s “Green New Deal” .
There has been claims that Portugal has one of the biggest reserves of lithium in Europe and the 9th biggest worldwide, with around 60.000 tons . Most of this lithium is found in pegmatite rocks, which can provide two different types of lithium minerals: spodumene (the one found in Covas do Barroso) and petalite (found in other parts of the country). When compared, spodumene tends to be more appealing to the industry in economic terms. Studies have shown that Covas do Barroso, a rural village located in the northern municipality of Boticas, has potentially around 7.100 tons of lithium . This drew the attention of the Portuguese government, which sought to attract “international players in the mining industry” through public biddings . Former Secretary of State for Energy, Jorge Seguro Sanches, argues that this was done for Portugal to secure a place at the forefront of Europe's lithium strategy .
The concession of the Covas do Barroso project was secured by the British mining company Savannah Resources Plc in June 2019, with negotiations having started in 2017 . According to the government, the approval of the mining exploration would be given after the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was concluded . David Archer, the CEO of Savannah, claims that the mining project will “bring maximum benefits to the local economy and population, and Portugal as a whole” . He adds that the investment will be superior to 500 million euros, bringing over 800 jobs to the area, and helping to save a “moribund region” which is “deprived of people and means of subsistence” . The company also claims to be very implicated in “sustainable and responsible mining”, based on the best practices available which respect the local environment . If the project advances to the exploration phase, it will become the biggest open-pit lithium mine in Europe (593 hectares)  and is estimated to generate over 1.3 billion euros in revenues for the company .
The local population of Covas do Barroso, however, has not shared Savannah’s optimist outlook on this potential project. In 2019, a group of residents of Covas do Barroso along with others that have their roots there, decided to create an association named “Unidxs em Defesa de Covas do Barroso” (United in Defense of Covas do Barroso, or UDCB), which aims at creating a platform that would resist the efforts to conduct mining exploration in the region. In recent years, they have been responsible for organizing protests across the country, for creating petitions, and for launching information campaigns, which have been very helpful in raising public awareness on this issue . In August 2021 and 2022, they organized the “Acampamento em Defesa do Barroso” (Camp in Defense of Barroso), where activists from all over the world, many of whom are also involved in mining conflicts in their home countries, came together for a week to share knowledge and experiences through different workshops and activities .
In the Covas do Barroso region, around 80 to 90 percent of the population works in the agricultural sector and there is a very strong social fabric. These strong social ties make the collective management of common lands (baldios) possible amongst the inhabitants. However, there has been a significant demographic decline in recent decades, as a large part of the population has left for urban centres in Portugal and abroad, especially the youth. The mining company use this fact to further push their agenda on the possible benefits of the mine (e.g., promises of jobs). Local resistance claims that mining will negatively affect local livelihoods. As the mayor of Boticas put it: “[The mine] will destroy the jobs that we currently have, like those in the area of agriculture, gastronomy, and rural tourism” . Local farmers claim that the destruction of rock into dust for lithium exploration will have very direct consequences for the groundwater, surface water, and the earth . Carlos Gonçalves, a local beekeeper, is very worried for his future livelihood, as the pollution of the plants will affect his honey production . There are also concerns regarding the destruction of the natural landscape, which is part of their identity as long-time residents of the region. As Aida Fernandes, a local farmer and activist, says: “our goal is to really stop the mine […] because it would be the total destruction of our village, of all this heritage we have, of everything” . Local opposition challenges the EU’s vision for the future of mobility: most residents believe that there are many viable alternatives to maintaining the current paradigm of individual car ownership, which is what will cause the unnecessary increased demand for lithium.
Covas do Barroso’s struggle has received nationwide and international attention; the resistance movement has also achieved other important milestones. In a decision taken by an overwhelming majority at the commoners’ assembly, Savannah was prohibited access to the baldios (common lands), which was an important step forward since a big part of the concession is located within these lands. Furthermore, the local parish has also prohibited Savannah from entering their lands, which are public property. Finally, the opponents to the project have managed to make the Barroso region the first (and only) FAO recognized Globally Important Agriculture Heritage System (GIAHS) in Portugal . Finally, the UDCB has developed an alternative Environmental Impact Assessment that seeks to show the negative environmental impacts of the mine to the public and to the authorities .
As of 2022, the project is on hold and waiting to be approved by the government .
 Carvalho, J. M., & Farinha, J. A. L.
B. (2004, March). Lithium potentialities in Northern Portugal. In 17th Industrial Minerals International Congress, Barcelona, Spain (pp. 1-10).